Briefly describe the work you do.
My work utilizes buon fresco, an ancient technique of pigmenting wet lime plaster. In its purest sense, fresco is a method of painting into stone. I enjoy the physical act of making and spreading plaster and feel a reverence towards the medium’s long history. I’m also charmed by the painting’s surface, which has a jewel-like quality.
I make monochromatic frescoes using an airbrush (spray paint). I spray fine mists of pigment onto the fresh plaster until a veiled figure emerges. The atomized dispersal of the figure interests me because it creates a painting whose forms hinge less on boldness and more on subtlety and delicacy. Although my process is rooted in traditional media, such as buon fresco, and silverpoint, my goal is to create contemporary images that intrigue viewers and reflect my own curiosities about the world.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I have an affinity for materials and processes, which I attribute to experiences at Fontbonne University, where I studied art. For me, the physical aspects of the work, as well as the images or objects themselves, are visceral and have an atavistic significance.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
The lion’s share of my studio practice is completed in a traditional studio setting. Some of my creative process is spent working away from the easel, tinkering with photographic reference imagery or interacting with other artists and thinkers by way of the Internet, reading, or talking.
While painting a large-scale fresco at Western Kentucky University, my studio moved to Van Meter Auditorium, the location of the mural. Most people didn’t realize my work day started at 8am and I wouldn’t finish painting until 4 or 5am the next morning. They were gruelingly long days, but equally rewarding and I cherished the quiet nights alone with the building.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I would have never guessed I’d be teaching others about art. It’s been one of the most pleasant surprises of my life.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I make some work throughout the year as my teaching schedule permits. However, the bulk of my studio practice occurs in the summer, or on sabbatical, when I’m not in the classroom. I appreciate the long uninterrupted days and find them well suited for making frescoes, mainly because the technique is so persnickety. The working time of fresco varies considerably based on things like humidity. It requires a great deal of time and preparation, and can be obstinate, like a headstrong friend. Fresco painting happens on the plaster’s terms, no sooner, no later.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
Five years ago I was working on a large-scale fresco mural, using the medium as it has been in the past, as an architectural element. Today, I’m still making buon frescoes, but I try to push the medium in ways that are more practical and contemporary. I make frescoes that are portable and in some cases modular. Rather than applying pigment with a traditional brush, I experiment by spraying paint with an airbrush, something that suggests an interesting political contradiction, as fresco has been used historically by patrons as a “top down” medium. More important to me, the atomized effects of airbrush echo thematic concerns that tie into the larger body of my work.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
My wife, Leslie Nichols, has a tremendous impact on my life and work. We have many stimulating conversations, oftentimes about gender and identity. Although my work and imagery isn’t about those topics specifically, they are related to my interests in broader metaphysical questions about knowing and being. Insofar as my works are manifestations of my thoughts, I am also impacted by the writing of a number of thinkers that include Mira Schor, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Morris Weitz. I’m particularly interested in how meaning builds, shifts, and sometimes disappears all-together.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I love hiking, and would enjoy working for the US National Parks Service, at the Grand Canyon.
Michael Nichols was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Nichols’ current work explores contemporary applications of two ancient media, silverpoint drawing and buon fresco painting. His practice in traditional techniques started at Fontbonne University in St Louis, where he earned an MFA.
His works have been featured in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States in venues that include the Boston Center for the Arts, Evansville Museum of Art, Huntsville Museum of Art, Purdue University, and the Strathmore Mansions and Galleries. In 2010, Nichols received an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. He lives and works in Bowling Green, Kentucky where he is an Associate Professor of Art at Western Kentucky University. He has been awarded three WKU faculty grants, Buon Fresco Technique, Painted in Stone, and Refresh, that supported research in the technique of buon fresco painting.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.